Friday, April 10, 2015

Illegitimacy: 'Unnatural' Birth in Stuart England

James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth,
eldest illegitimate son of Charles II and Lucy Scott.
The Restoration is seen as a period of almost legendary promiscuity. In the years following the Merry Monarch’s return, business for actresses and prostitutes was booming, domestic servants were prey for their masters, and many couples cohabited before they married, sometimes for years. Charles II himself had a dozen illegitimate children that he acknowledged, but the recorded rate remained at or below three percent of all births. Was this down to the growing popularity of condoms, dodgy statistics, or something worse? 

The truth is a little bit of all three. 

Most people did not marry until they had the means to establish independent households, causing many to delay marriage until later in life or to never get married at all. The mean male age at first marriage was between 27.1 and 28.1 years, and for women it was between 24.8 and 27. Men and women both commonly lived independently of their families before they married, if they ever did, and many couples cohabited. Between 1600 and 1649, roughly twenty-five percent of babies born in England were born within eight months of the wedding. Coward points out that: “Before the mid-eighteenth century marriage did not begin with a church wedding service; marriage was a process that began from the moment of the betrothal and was concluded by a ceremony in a church. As a result, conception often took place before the marriage process ended.” (2)

It is worth mentioning that this only takes into consideration the weddings and births that were formally recorded. Many marriages, particularly among the poor, had no church service and nothing more than a verbal contract. (4) Furthermore, many births went unrecorded, and the high rates of miscarriage and infant mortality make it impossible to get even a ballpark estimate of how many pregnancies occurred outside of a formal marriage, however it was defined. As many as three out of four children born in London could expect to die before the age of six. (3)

Astoundingly, the rate of illegitimacy only rose above three percent once during the entirety of the seventeenth century. (2) I find this hard to believe. Charles II probably accounted for most of those himself. He had twelve that he acknowledged, many becoming dukes and countesses, but most illegitimate children would not have fared so well. (4) Seen as unnatural and inherently untrustworthy, surviving illegitimate children would carry the stigma of their births with them their whole lives. 

So in an age known for promiscuity, why were the numbers of illegitimate children so low?

Condoms continued to grow in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were used primary to defend against syphilis and other venereal diseases, but also to protect against pregnancy as Casanova himself had advised. Unfortunately, the sheaths made from linen, sheep gut, or fish skin were a poor protection against pregnancy as they were held in place by ribbons and perhaps prayer, and were commonly re-used. Linen, of course, is porous, and would not have been a very reliable form of contraception. (5)

Infanticide was tragically common. "Unmarried mothers, terrified of the life of prostitution and destitution that they saw an inevitable after the shame of bearing an illegitimate child, covered up their pregnancies, and when their child was born either left it exposed to the elements to die, or abandoned it by a hospital or a workhouse where they hoped it might be given the chance to live.” Their short lives kept hidden, these births were unlikely to have been recorded in the parish records. (3)

There was a significant increase in prosecutions for infanticide in the seventeenth century. The Act to Prevent the Murdering of Bastard Children of 1624 required the woman to prove her innocence rather than for her accusers to prove guilt. Women employed as domestic servants were especially vulnerable to sexual advances or abuse by their employers. Between 1703 and 1772, twelve percent of the women executed at Tyburn were hanged for infanticide and a large proportion of those had been employed as domestic servants. (1)

Any woman bearing a stillborn child ran the risk of being accused of infanticide. As for the fathers, Worsley points out that: “Men were never criminalized in the same way for becoming parents outside marriage – how could they be? The master who made his maid pregnant had huge power over her. Society saw him as the deputy of the king, indeed of God, in the little kingdom of his own household. To criticize him would be to suggest that there was something wrong with the social order, and this was impossible.”(6)

The poor were not the only people having illegitimate children. As we know, Charles II and Louis XIV had at least a dozen each. Worsley explains that it was not that illegitimate children were not born into high society, but that their births were more easily kept quiet. “In the chapel of the Georgian St James’s Palace, some babies mysteriously ‘dropped in the court’ were baptized; no one knew who their mothers were, but various Maids of Honour seemed suspiciously willing to stand as godmothers.” (6)

Taking into consideration what we know of the limitations of parish records for this period, it seems likely that the true number of illegitimate births was much higher than that estimated three percent. Stillbirths, infanticides, and abandoned children would not have been counted, and others would have been spared the stigma if their parents married fast enough. As for the number of babies ‘dropped in the court,’ I couldn’t find an estimate. 

Sources
1. Brandon, David, and Brooke, Alan. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree. Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004.
2. Coward, Barry. The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714. Longman Group UK, 1980.
3. Moore, Lucy. The Thieves’ Opera. Viking, 1997.
4. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
5. Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. Scarborough House, 1992.
6. Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk. Walker & Company, 2011.

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